National crisis management more important than future of the EU

1. How does the future of the EU after the Irish ‘No’ look like?

 

For the past two years, but especially since autumn 2008, Latvia has been increasingly preoccupied with its own problems. The Latvians are particularly concerned with:

  • the quality of political leadership, especially at the national level, and the dramatic decline in confidence in the elected and appointed officials;
  • economic recession.

Given that credible steps to resolve the problems are not yet in sight, early in 2009 the Latvian public is focusing more than ever on their own problems. Other issues, including the Lisbon Treaty and the future of the EU after the Irish ‘No’, are regarded as having less immediacy.

In early November 2008 the Ministry of Foreign Affairs promoted a four-day visit to Portugal for the purpose of better acquainting Latvian journalists with the Lisbon Treaty. They, in turn, were expected to stimulate the interest of the Latvian public in the treaty and its implementation.[1] The results, however, did not meet the expectations owing primarily to the unexpected collapse of the “Parex” bank, the second largest bank in Latvia which had heretofore enjoyed a very good reputation both at home and abroad. Acting on news received only a few days earlier, the Prime Minister, Ivars Godmanis, decided on 8 November 2008 to bail out the bank.[2] The implementation of the decision revealed basic weaknesses in the country’s economy and extremely short-sighted planning, especially during the years when Aigars Kalvītis was Prime Minister and Latvia was experiencing fast growth and steadily increasing inflation.

Consequently, there has been minimal public discussion of the Lisbon Treaty and its impact on Latvia, and even less discussion of the Irish ‘No’, the proposed ways of resolving it or what might happen to the European Union should the dilemma become protracted. The broader international issues have become more and more the domain of the country’s leaders because the populace has been focussing on domestic developments. Currently, issues, such as the formation of a new European Commission in autumn 2009, appointment of the High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy and the EU integration process, are not on the public’s list of priority topics and they have not been discussed in the mass media. While many political parties have already chosen their candidates for Latvia’s delegation to the European Parliament, no pre-election excitement is yet to be felt among the electorate.

The address of President, Valdis Zatlers, to the European Parliament on 13 January 2009 in Strasbourg, illustrates well the EU topics perceived as most relevant to Latvians.[3] Recalling that the year 2009 marks the fifth anniversary of Latvia’s membership in the Union, the president underlined the importance of the EU enlargement of 2004 for Latvia. The president also expressed his appreciation to the European Parliament for declaring 23 August as a day of remembrance of the victims of Stalinism and Nazism.

Turning to current issues, Zatlers welcomed the EU’s initiatives to deal with the international economic problems; Zatlers thanked warmly the European institutions and individual countries for the assistance offered to Latvia to overcome its economic difficulties. He focused on the Union’s energy security and its Eastern Partnership, and welcomed the Baltic Sea regional initiatives and projects.

In conclusion, President Zatlers outlined his vision of the European Union in 2015, noting also Latvia’s role and the honour and responsibility of assuming the EU presidency that year. Reiterating his support for the Lisbon Treaty and the conclusions of the European Council of December 2008 to activate it, he called for a more united Europe and cautioned against measures that could lead to fragmentation or “a Europe of several speeds”.

The President’s endorsement of the Lisbon Treaty does not reflect fully the variety of sentiments in Latvia. While most Latvians see their parliament’s approval of the treaty on 8 May 2008 as a condition of belonging to the European Union, 13 political activists questioned the procedure, claiming that a referendum was mandatory. On 25 July 2008, they asked the constitutional court to consider the issue. In autumn, the court agreed to look into the matter and early in 2009 both sides were preparing their cases for the first hearing, scheduled for 3 March 2009. How and when the court will decide cannot be predicted.[4]

As for President Zatlers, in his speech he did not acknowledge the possibility that the Lisbon Treaty might end up in a state of limbo either in Latvia, or in the European Union as a whole. His view of the EU in 2015 was distinctly upbeat. Quoting the Latvian poet Rainis, who said that he who changes will survive, Zatlers envisions the EU as one of the pillars of economic power after the worldwide economic crisis has been overcome. Furthermore, the will and ability to be united in diversity will be the key to increasing the EU’s role in the world. It will also permit the admission of other European countries, which uphold European values, into the Union. The EU will have become larger while retaining its ability of act effectively. The Union will not look at its members through the prism of geography, geopolitics, or length of EU membership, but rather their achievements.

2. Transatlantic relations renewed after President Bush: top priorities

 

Obama has not prompted Latvia to re-examine Latvian-US relations

In Latvia, as in other European states, the election of Barack Obama as the President of the United States was met with widespread public approval. Despite the fact that ‘change’ was the principal theme of Obama’s campaign, there was in 2008 and there is in early 2009 no reason to anticipate fundamental changes in US-Latvian relations. These can be characterised as a strategic partnership.

Given the preoccupation of Latvians, particularly since November 2008, with their own problems, the election of a new US President has not prompted them to re-examine Latvian-US, let alone transatlantic relations. There has been no commentary in the Latvian media in recent months devoted specifically to redefining or revitalising European-American relations during the Obama Presidency.

From the meagre discussions on topics related to transatlantic relations in the Latvian media and public statements of officials, it appears that the more prevalent views on improving EU-US relations reflect many of the mainstream views of leading EU officials and political pundits elsewhere in Europe. A tentative list of recommendations from Latvia could be:

Europe must learn to speak with one voice. By extension, the EU must demonstrate unity of purpose, accompanied by the necessary capacity to act in line with that purpose. Thus, the EU would demonstrate more convincingly to the rest of the world that it is a credible partner to be reckoned with.
Firm advocacy of multilateralism rather than unilateralism or bilateralism – all involved parties should be at the discussion table.
Better coordination of activities on matters of common interest and common challenges, and these are a multitude.
The wish of the European Union to strengthen its role in global affairs has been all too frequently hampered by the inability of the member states to speak with one voice on important issues. This has also affected transatlantic relations by making it easier for Washington to take the initiative without adequately consulting with Brussels. Aware of these weaknesses, the EU has instituted major reforms, most notably the Lisbon Treaty, but until they are functioning considerable time will have passed. In the meanwhile, the first two steps of the Union should be simultaneous: on key issues, the EU member states should define and agree upon a common stand or policy guidelines that are binding for all member states while speeding up the reform process.

Unity of purpose in Europe is particularly important as the world becomes increasingly multi-polar with the centres of power no longer being the United States and Europe as it was at the start of this century. In the intervening years we have seen Russia successfully reassert itself and as a major power and the growing importance on the world stage of China, India, and Brazil. This is the situation as President Obama starts his presidency. From his initial statements, it is clear that Europe will continue to enjoy a special role in American foreign relations; Europe should not expect Washington to be less attentive to its relations with other major powers. Thus, the EU should realize that it too is a part of the multilateral world and is perceived as such by other players.

On areas of common interest and common challenges, such as dealing with global economic problems, and energy and climate change, renewed attention should be given to better coordination of activities and existing cooperation frameworks. Clearly, the work of the “Transatlantic Economic Council” should be enhanced. In the realm of international security, the EU member states should reassess their own cooperation, and clarify their common strategic vision, especially vis-à-vis the outside world.[5] This, in turn, should strengthen the foundations of EU and NATO relations and facilitate practical cooperation. Efforts should also be made to raise the level of existing cooperation regarding the countries affiliated with the European Neighbourhood Policy and involved with Eastern Partnership. Willingness to do so, as has been expressed by Benita Ferrero-Waldner on 3 December 2008, should be followed up by concrete efforts.

3. Financial crisis and challenges of global governance: the EU response

 

Response to global challenges should not be decided by a select few

Latvia expects the EU to react energetically to the challenge of overcoming the global economic decline and restoring growth and that in order to achieve this, a new architecture and new mechanisms are needed for the global financial system. The response to this global challenge should also include pursuing actively the Doha Round of discussions on liberalising world trade to their logical conclusion and supporting consistently a policy of free and open trade.[6] The resultant agreements and policies, Latvia feels, would present a wider window of opportunity for developing its own foreign trade relations.

More specifically, during the Czech Presidency of the EU, Latvia anticipates implementation of the steps agreed upon during the European Council of 11 and 12 December 2008. Likewise, Latvia anticipates simplification in the application procedure for, and speedier disbursement of, the various EU funds for assisting agriculture.

Latvia endorses the principles of the G20 declaration, announced in Washington on 15 November 2008, and would like to contribute to the discussions at the EU level of the follow-up G20 Summit in April 2009.

The performance of the EU in the financial crisis so far

Latvia tends to look at the performance of the EU in the worldwide financial crisis almost exclusively through the prism of its own set of problems and challenges, especially those deriving from its economic recession. Consequently, the view from Rīga can be summarised very quickly. Firstly, the government and the people are grateful for the Union’s speedy decision to offer financial assistance. There is also much appreciation for allowing the recipient countries to choose the appropriate political instruments that they see as best suited for rejuvenating their economies. Thus, Latvians intend to follow closely how the assistance funds are spent so that the funds truly stimulate a solid economic recovery leading to renewed growth.

Expected shifts in the international power constellation

The response to this very broad question entails rather sophisticated prognostication and a global, rather than a national focus on current developments. As noted earlier, currently Latvia is most concerned with how best to resolve its own problems. Regarding the future, the ideas that have been aired so far seem to reflect mainstream European thinking. One is that the response to global challenges should not be decided by a select few, but that the circle of discussants and decision-makers should be increased to include as many stakeholders as possible, even if arriving at an agreement becomes more time-consuming. This in turn could serve to revive the question of competences: when and where the EU should be represented as an organisation and when EU participation would be via the participation of individual EU member states? Without attempting to sort this question out – this has to be done by all the member states – one way that the EU can ensure its global relevance is by contributing visibly and effectively to a successful economic recovery of, and renewed growth, in its member states. This would also strengthen the Union’s position in a multilateral world.

 

 

 

[1] Ministry of Foreign Affairs: Latvijas žurnālisti Portugālē uzzina par Lisabonas līguma nozīmi Eiropas Savienības tālākajā attīstībā, press release, 7 November 2008, available at: http://www.mfa.gov.lv/lv/Jaunumi/vestniecibu/2008/2008-11-07-4/ (last access: 25 January 2009).
[2] See BNS and LETA, news agencies: dispatches of 8 November 2008.
[3] President Zatlers delivered his speech in Latvian. For the full text see: http://www.mfa.gov.lv/lv/Jaunumi/Runas/2009/janvaris/13-1/?print=on (last access: 25 January 2009). The subsequent references to the speech will not be separately footnoted.
[4] See LETA, news agency: dispatches of 16 March 2009, available at: http://leta.lv/archive_item.php?id=C83892EF-C833-4FCC-AF1D-84E561806473&phase=Lisabonas+l%C4%ABgums&sd=1&sm=1&sy=2008&ed=23&em=2&ey=2009&t[]=t0&t[]=t1&t[]=t3&t[]=t5&t[]=t4&more=true&moreid=0 (last access: 25 January 2009).
[5] These ideas come from a discussion in October 2008 among members of the European Affairs Committee of the Latvian parliament and Latvian government officials. See LETA, news agency: dispatch of 20 October 2008.
[6] The answers to this set of questions draw mainly on a document outlining Latvia’s priorities during the Czech Presidency of the EU. See Latvian Ministry of Foreign Affairs: Latvijai būtiskākie jautājumi ārlietu jomā Čehijas ES prezidentūras laikā 2009. gada pirmajā pusē, available at: http://www.mfa.gov.lv/lv/eu/Prioritates/CehijaPrezidentura/ (last access: 25 January 2009).